With all the votes tallied, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been re-elected president of Taiwan. By a significant margin of 18.5 percent or 2.65 million votes, the people in the only liberal democracy in the Chinese-speaking world have handed her and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) another four years as the president and party with a majority control of the Legislative Yuan, respectively. Indeed, Tsai received 57.1 percent of the total votes, whereas her primary challenger, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) received only 38.6 percent. While Tsai’s victory is resounding, the path here has been far from smooth or guaranteed. From a traumatizing defeat for her party in the November 2018 local elections (that was interpreted by observers as a referendum on her personally), to dealing with an unprecedented contested primary for an incumbent president, she emerged as the favorite candidate to win the 2020 presidential election—and succeeded.
With the benefit of hindsight, this article will seek to explain what factors may have contributed to her electoral success and the implications of the results. There are three issues that probably contributed to the electoral outcome: 1) sovereignty as a focal point of the election; 2) a split opposition coalition; and 3) the youths turned out to vote. The three likely implications of the elections result that bear watching: 1) Beijing’s hardline response, 2) Tsai/DPP’s weaker political capital and the opposition’s troubling orientation, and 3) necessity of greater international support.
Three Factors Contributing to Election Results
Economic performance and sovereignty have long been defining issues in Taiwan’s general elections and the pendulum of public opinion often swings back and forth between these two with each election. What are different this time around appear to be a relatively well-performing economy and a strong swing in public sentiment towards the importance of sovereignty. The latter change in sentiment is likely due to the growing awareness among the Taiwanese public about the threats posed by China to the country’s sovereignty and the people’s way of life through the CCP’s malign influence operations—both at home and abroad. Whether this swing is temporary or more permanent remains to be seen. A clear manifestation of this threat came from General Secretary Xi Jinping’s (習近平) hardline speech in his 40th anniversary of the Message to the Taiwan Compatriots, Beijing intensifying pressure campaign against Taiwan, and its hardline response to the ongoing Hong Kong crisis and Beijing’s suppression of people’s rights there under “One Country, Two Systems”—which is the PRC’s formula for unification with Taiwan.
A split within the opposition coalition is another factor that contributed to the election outcome. In the very beginning, from the political insurgency represented by Han Kuo-yu’s unlikely but decisive victory on the KMT ticket in Kaohsiung—with little to no help from the party establishment—to him besting the most seasoned and experienced politicians of the KMT have furthered a schism within the party between the establishment and anti-establishment factions that emerged during and deepened in the aftermath of the 2016 general elections, pointing to a malaise ailing the party. The KMT was left with an energetic fringe base represented by Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) and Han Kuo-yu, and seemingly without a viable political leader that could unite the party after Ma Ying-jeou.
Finally, 74.9 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2020 elections—this is 7 percent higher than in the 2016 elections. While a lot of ink has been spilled already about the generational differences in Taiwan’s politics, these elections may serve to solidify these political allegiances. Indeed, older generations tend to favor the KMT, whereas younger voters are generally supportive of President Tsai. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the youths turned out to vote in the 2020 elections. If true, this will represent a significant voter base and important voting bloc in future elections that both parties will need to pay close attention to in future elections.
The first implication is Beijing’s probable hardline response to the elections. While time will only tell how Beijing will actually respond, most indicators point to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ratcheting up its multi-faceted pressure and political warfare campaign against Taiwan. This will likely come in the form of ramped up efforts to poach Taiwan’s 15 remaining diplomatic partners. Also, Beijing is likely to continue—if not expand—its military activities around Taiwan. These activities are not only directed at Taiwan and affect the security of Taiwan but also neighboring countries like Japan.
The second implication is that somewhat counter-intuitively Tsai Ing-wen will emerge from this victory weaker than when she entered office for her first administration. Tsai spent a lot of her political capital in the first administration struggling to push through multiple highly controversial domestic economic and political reforms such as transitional justice, same-sex marriage, pension, labor, and judicial reforms, among other measures. These issues have, in no small part, contributed to her stagnating approval ratings leading up to the November 2018 elections. She also faced a lot of criticism for not standing up to Beijing enough from deep green elements within her own party. While the record-breaking number of popular vote that she received does point to a renewed mandate, some of these issues have not gone away although they were superseded by other events such as the Hong Kong protests and Beijing’s hardline stance against Taiwan. A consequence of her political weakness will be the need and expectation to compromise more politically both within factions within her own party but also with the other political parties that now make up the Legislative Yuan.
While Tsai’s victory may not be a surprise to many observers, the DPP maintaining its majority—albeit a slimmer one—should come as one. It is worth noting here that in terms of party votes, the DPP received roughly around the same number of votes as the KMT (4.8M to 4.7M; or 33.9 percent to 33.3 percent)—with the Taiwan’s People’s Party (TPP) garnering 11.2 percent and the New Power Party gaining 7.7 percent. But the DPP did lose 7 seats, dropping from 68 to 61. While one could argue that the loss of seats it could have been worse—and perhaps it would have been had the KMT not committed several own-goals—it is still a loss of seats for the DPP. This result could be interpreted as less a rejection of the KMT and more of the party’s presidential candidate. That being said, the KMT only gained three extra seats from 25 to 28 and there were a number of very close races that should arguably not be as close. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s TPP won 5 seats and while in neither coalition (as the NPP is with the DPP, and the PFP with the KMT), they are likely to play their position as a truly independent third party that could play a disruptive role in the Legislative Yuan.
The third implication will be determined by the response from the United States, Japan, and other like-minded partners. In light of the aforementioned two factors, Taipei’s ties with Washington and Tokyo are going to be even more crucial over the next four years than in the past four years. General Secretary Xi Jinping has specifically tasked the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to complete military reform and modernization by 2035 and to become a world-class military by 2050. The former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff stated: “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation [United States] by about 2025.” If the chairman of the most powerful military is worried about the threats posed by China, then it does not require a stretch of imagination to estimate how many times multiplied this threat is to smaller countries in its immediate periphery like Taiwan and Japan as well.
While the results of the elections are perhaps not a surprise for many observers, the results are no less significant. The people have spoken. Will Beijing change course from its destabilizing efforts to unilaterally change the status quo and contribute to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait? If Beijing continues to eschew genuinely engaging Tsai, it will be up to the United States, Japan, and other like-minded partners to counter-balance Beijing’s assertive and coercive behaviors—since they do not stop with Taiwan.
For its part, the United States has made its views clearly known. Only hours after the results were officially announced, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a strong and affirmative statement on behalf of the US government congratulating President Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election as president of Taiwan:
The United States congratulates Dr. Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election in Taiwan’s presidential election. We also congratulate Taiwan for once again demonstrating the strength of its robust democratic system, which—coupled with a free market economy and a vibrant civil society—makes it a model for the Indo-Pacific region and a force for good in the world.
The American people and the people on Taiwan are not just partners—we are members of the same community of democracies, bonded by our shared political, economic, and international values. We cherish our constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, nurture private sector-led growth and entrepreneurship, and work to be positive forces in the international community.
The United States thanks President Tsai for her leadership in developing a strong partnership with the United States and applauds her commitment to maintaining cross-Strait stability in the face of unrelenting pressure. Under her leadership, we hope Taiwan will continue to serve as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity, and a better path for their people.
The ball is now in Beijing’s court.
The main point: The three issues that probably contributed to President Tsai’s re-election include sovereignty as a focal point of the election; a split opposition coalition; and the youths high voting turnout. Beijing’s hardline response, Tsai/DPP’s weaker political capital and the KMT’s troubling orientation, and necessity of greater international support are key likely implications of the election results.
(This article is adapted from a version that appeared in Japan Forward as “After Taiwan Polls, Will China Alter Status Quo or Contribute to Peace and Stability?” on January 14, 2020.)